While we were in London last week, PJ and I saw two musicals and a play: The Drowsy Chaperone, Mary Poppins, and In Celebration. Last year, we saw three really great productions in London: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park, The Seagull at the National, and Billy Elliot the Musical. So we had high hopes for this year’s trip. Unfortunately, we were mostly disappointed.

Let’s start with the good: The Drowsy Chaperone was excellent. The musical centers on the Man in the Chair, a middle aged theater queen (yes, he’s a theater queen regardless of whether he’s gay or straight) who plays the cast album of his favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, a fictional musical that comes to life as he listens to the album.

The production stars one of its creators, Bob Martin, who won a Tony Award for its book. He fills the part perfectly. He imbues the Man in the Chair with both humor and pathos, a difficult task to pull off. As the production progresses, we learn more about the Man, who serves as both leading man and narrator. What distinguishes this musical is its postmodern crossovers between the Man in the Chair and the inner musical. He both narrates the action and, because it is taking place in his little apartment, takes part in it (to a degree). Rather than being gimmicky, this back and forth really works.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the musical and a discussion about it from London t.v.:

As this clip points out, the show is ironic and depicts the characteristics of 1920s musicals in both a loving and satiric way. We see their sexism, racism, and (to a degree) homophobia at the same time that we see why someone might love them. This is a musical that loves musicals even while it can point out some of their flaws.

The London star of the show is Elaine Paige, famous (in part) for originating such roles as Grisabella the Glamor Cat in Cats, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and Eva Peron in Evita on the London stage. She is a hoot in the title role, the chaperone who is tasked with keeping the bride away from the groom until their wedding ceremony, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that she gets drowsy when she drinks and she drinks like she’s Karen Walker‘s best drinking buddy.

The entire is cast is first rate, as are the sets and costumes. The songs are also catchy, and we both came away humming them as we walked to the underground. My only problem with the musical (which was mostly alleviated by the end) was its depiction of gay men. Despite what he tells us, the Man in the Chair is clearly gay. He refuses to acknowledge it though. The musical within the comedy also contains a gay character, who is depicted just as stereotypically as as all of the other characters (so that isn’t a problem).

What bothered me was that the two gay characters (there’s also a lesbian, but she’s so peripheral to the plot that she doesn’t really count) aren’t ever really acknowledged as gay. No one ever says “I’m gay” or “He’s gay.” Instead, it’s all implied and hiding in plain sight. While this may keep the show “family friendly,” I found it really unfortunate. While the writers could probably claim that this is in keeping with the 1920s musicals that the show mimics, maintaining this particular silence feels a little heterosexist to me. The production doesn’t have to make the inner musical’s racism explicit because we can all see it for ourselves (or at least I think we can, but maybe it’s racist to think that?!). But not making the heterosexism explicit, not calling it out for what it is and further reproducing it in the outer comedy, merely serves to maintain that heterosexism.

Partly, this troubled me because, as we stood in line to buy tickets in Leicester Square, I heard the ticket agent explaining to someone that this show is “family friendly.” In today’s America, I can’t help but hear that as heterosexist at best and homophobic at worst. So, I shouldn’t blame the show for that. But do wish that they had at least given the gay character in the inner musical a better ending — I thought they should have had him become a wedding planner.

By the end of the show, my worries about its internalized homophobia were mostly alleviated by the way it handled the Man in the Chair. His sexuality seems to be a little more explicitly gay by the end (though it’s still unspoken). I guess I identify a lot with the Man in the Chair, since I can remember sitting at home as an 8th grader listening to my cast album of The Man of La Mancha, a musical that I had never actually seen. Listening to it opened up a whole new world for me — one of art and theater and imagination. The way the Man in the Chair talks about his fictional musical is much like how I thought of this real one. So, I feel protective of that character and of the fact that I’ve grown into a bit of a theater queen as an adult. Since it is kind of personal for me, I hesitate to see him as a comic figure and I definitely want the production not only to acknowledge his sexuality but affirm it.

At any rate, I loved the production and would highly recommend it. It’s by far the most entertaining play we saw this visit to London. Mary Poppins is nothing but mildly entertaining fluff (at best — though the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious number is definitely rousing and impressive!) and In Celebration seems rather dated and somewhat confused. It was somewhat exciting being in the same room as Orlando Bloom, who stars in In Celebration, but even that thrill wore off as the play never seemed to go any where particularly insightful. What might have been somewhat provocative in 1969 doesn’t seem at all risky or insightful today, I’m afraid, though I did like the play’s discussion of the British class system.

Hopefully next time we’re in London we’ll get to see more productions on the scale of The Drowsy Chaperone and the shows we saw last year!